No to singing online for S. Korean opera star Sumi Jo

Sumi Jo will perform live on April 30 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

SINGAPORE - South Korean soprano Sumi Jo does not like to sing online.

The Grammy Award-winning opera singer, 59, taught a singing class virtually last year to students from Harvard University in the United States.

It was a disaster, she says. "It was really hard. The students on the other side, their voices echoed and the images disappeared. I was playing the piano at the same time. The sound was so loud and awkward."

Jo was so put off by the virtual masterclass that she later turned down the chance to be a judge for an online singing competition.

She is excited to perform live again on April 30 at the Esplanade Concert Hall in a concert presented by Altenburg Arts. She will be accompanied by pianist Jeff Cohen, with whom she is currently rehearsing in Portugal.

The concert had to be postponed twice in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 restrictions.

During the pandemic, the singer, who is single, spent time at home with her two rescue dogs, Chanel and Roy. The break was welcome at first, but she soon began to fret about the acoustics of practising at home.

"The first two weeks, I was happy, but afterwards, I didn't feel comfortable. I felt like I should be going to places, performing, teaching," she says. "If I don't sing, I don't know what else I can do."

Born Jo Su-gyeong, she has been training for the spotlight since she was a child. Her mother, who wanted to be an opera singer, signed Jo up for singing lessons when she was six.

The young Jo, however, aspired to be a veterinarian. It was only when she moved to Italy at 19 that she realised she had a talent for opera singing. "I gave up my other dreams, like being a veterinarian, being an ambassador... and concentrated on my career."

Once she took her training seriously, her rise to fame quickly followed.

In 1986, she was awarded the first prize in the prestigious Carlo Alberto Cappelli International Competition in Verona, which is open only to first-prize winners of other major competitions. That same year, she made her European operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste, Italy.

Jo is a coloratura soprano, distinguished by her vocal lightness and agility. She became a prima donna, the chief female singer of a company, before she was 30 and has performed in metropolitan opera houses in New York, Vienna and Paris.

She has also worked in film and television, providing the singing voice of Veda Pierce, played by Evan Rachel Wood, in the 2011 HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

She won a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 1993. Simple Song Number 3, which she performed in Paolo Sorrentino's film Youth (2015), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

As one of the few Asian singers navigating a Western opera tradition, Jo felt she "looked different" from her Western counterparts.

Her advice to young singers is to remain humble and learn about the songs' European cultural background in order to improve their interpretations.

She last performed in Singapore in 2014. A nature lover, she was taken with Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens, and plans to visit them again during her two-day trip this year, before heading to Europe and the US.

Travel also seems to be the theme of the line-up for her one-night-only concert, the songs of which include genres such as baroque, and languages such as French, Italian and Korean.

"Just sit back comfortably and travel with me through music," she says.

Book it/ Dream With Me: An Exquisite Evening With Sumi Jo

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive
MRT: City Hall/Esplanade
When: April 30, 7.30pm
Admission: $38 to $168 from Sistic's website

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